What is the Incremental City?

What is the Incremental City?


The concern for an understanding of an ‘incremental city’ can start with a critique of contemporary urban design obsessed with the physical form dominated by an aesthetic of a final product; a practice of ‘urbanism’ as an extension of ‘architecture’. This is manifested in the form of large scale, hierarchical, inflexible, high capital and centralized ‘city-making’ projects in the name of masterplanning often under the guise of regeneration. The masterplan often fails to grasp the complex and rich dynamics which define cities; the obsession with form (architectural) tends to gloss over political, economical and social experiences.

In Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jacobs argues against the masterplanned city, notoriously against Robert Moses’s mega-block renewal policies and highway construction for New York. Jacobs writes…

[Practitioners and researchers] have ignored the study of success and failure in real life, have been incurious about the reasons for unexpected success, and are guided instead by principles derived from the behaviours and appearance of towns, suburbs, tuberculosis sanatoria, fairs, and imaginary dream cities – anything but cities themselves (Jacobs 1961, p.9).

For Jacobs, the understanding of city was grounded in experience – inductive observations made mostly in her neighbourhood of Greenwich Village. Jacobs presents a perspective of ‘citiness’ that is intrinsically a human experience rooted in place and ones understanding of place. Experience requires some form of engagement, Malpas argues, “It is through our engagement with place that our own human being is made real, but it is also through our engagement that places takes on a sense and significance of its own” (Malpas 1999, p.23). Arguably this engagement is phenomenological (Seamon, 2011) with the city ready-to-hand (Heidegger, 1962), “it is not merely human identity that is tied to place or locality, but the very possibility of being the sort of creature that can engage with a world …, that can think about that world, and that can find itself in the world” (Malpas 1999, p.8). In this context ‘incrementalism’ – a piece-meal way of city building – is presented as a strategy which understands that ‘citiness’ is found not as a final product but an on-going project rooted in experience and engagement.

In recognizing this compelling interconnectedness of place, experience and engagement – as key to identifying Jacob’s idea of ‘citiness’ – at the heart of this is an identification of neighbourhood within city. For there to be an engagement, to achieve experience, place or locality needs to be identifiable – place, that on the one hand is recognizably unique and local but also in continual change capable of diversity, absorption and migration. A position in stark contrast to conventional city plans which are shaped controlled and generated for money-making purposes. ‘Incrementalism’ encourages the contributions of people to shape and affect their environments by being active components of making place, the process of incremental improvements, addition, or development offers these opportunities which are lost in large scale one-stop projects. The vice of masterplanning driven by big business or big government which requires substantial capital investment is that it often fails to recognize that city building/planning has to begin and end with people – learning from one of the original social planners, Patrick Geddes (Meller 1990. P 255). As the world becomes increasingly urban, this approach to city planning is increasingly important in terms of development economics – arguing that there is a direct relationship between human freedoms (capacities) (Sen, 1999, p.3) and the built environment. It is proposed that through engagement with the city/ town/ neighbourhood those human freedoms can be achieved – for people to be agents of their environments rather than passive beneficiaries or victims.

To describe what the incremental city is, Christopher Alexander’s (Alexander et al., 1997) approach offers much insight. Alexander adopts an inductive approach to place-making which is useful in this context, and paradigmatically incremental. In A Pattern Language: Towns, Building and Construction Alexander identifies 253 patterns by which humans identify the space which they live in and the relationships which encourage interaction at multiple levels. Alexander writes,

These patterns can never be ‘designed’ or built’ in one fell swoop – but patient piece-meal growth, designed in such a way that every individual act is always helping to create or generate these larger global patterns, will, slowly and surely, over the years, make a community that has these global patterns in it… We do not believe that these large patterns, which give so much structure to a town or of a neighbourhood, can be created by centralized authority, or by laws, or by master plans. We believe instead that they can emerge gradually and organically, almost of their own accord, if every act of building, large or small, takes on the responsibility for gradually shaping its small corner of the world to make these larger patterns appears there. (Alexander et al., 1977, p. 3)

The structural simplicity of trees is like the compulsive desire for neatness and order that insists that the candlesticks on a mantelpiece be perfectly straight and perfectly symmetrical about the centre. The semi-lattice, by comparison, is the structure of a complex fabric; it is the structure of living things – of great paintings and symphonies. (Alexander, 1966)The argument is that for communities to work, place must enable a multiple and overlapping set of activities – patterns defined yet not too defined. For Alexander these patterns are best understood between two types of cities: there are ‘natural’ and ‘artificial cities’ (Alexander, 1966) the former having arisen more or less spontaneously over time and the later created by designers and planners. The ‘artificial city’ organizes to form a tree – a rigid hierarchy; whilst the ‘natural city’ is a semilattice – a non-rigid overlap of elements. Both the tree and the semilattice are sets – mathematical language used to describe large complex systems composed of a collection of smaller elements.

For Alexander, the city must be a semi-lattice. The proposition is that the complex fabric of the ‘natural city’ has a heuristic value rarely grasped by architects and planners. To engage with the city we must design cities based on “human situations” (typicalities) as opposed to architectural objects (typologies). Peter Carl writes,

Mutual understanding depends upon the element of recognition… The element of recognition is carried by the typicalities, defined as those aspects common-to-all. What is common-to-all exerts a claim upon freedom; freedom depends upon what is common-to-all for its meaning (freedom would otherwise be alienation).  (Carl,p.6)

The phenomenon of recognition is complex, of which familiarity is an important constituent. For there to be any understanding there must be recognition – loaded by experience, education, patterns and so on. For Carl the practice of ‘type’ flattens the structure “to a single horizon of representation when architecture is reduced to form and space” (Carl, p.6).

It is more and more widely recognised today that there is some essential ingredient missing from artificial cities. When compared with ancient cities that have acquired the patina of life, our modern attempts to create cities artificially are, from a human point of view, entirely unsuccessful. (Alexander, 1966)

It is proposed that the incremental city achieves what the ‘natural city’ achieves as it is developed in a piece-meal way responding to local conditions, desires and aspiration. It is not designed or developed in one fell swoop.

Incrementalism in this sense creates city which delivers the performance dimensions of ‘a good city’ presented in Good City Form (Lynch, 1981) which places much emphasis on understanding the importance of permitting change so that the individual can ground themselves into and become part of the urban fabric into which they belong. Lynch describes,

The good city is one in which the continuity of complex ecology is maintained while progressive change is permitted. The fundamental good is the continuous development of the individual or the small group and their culture: a process of becoming more complex, more richly connected, more competent, acquiring and realizing new powers – intellectual, emotional, social and physical… So the settlement is good which enhances the continuity of a culture and the survival of its people, increases a sense of connection in time and space, and permits or spurs individual growth: development, within continuity, via openness and connection … accessible, decentralized, diverse, adaptable and tolerant to experiment. (Lynch 1981, p.116-117)

[Seems] natural… has a capacity to absorb spontaneous additions, subtractions, technical modification without disturbing its sense of order, indeed such changes enhance it … can accept change of use within the ‘convention of use’ of the greater fabric of which it forms part, it dies if its use falls outside that ‘convention-of-use’ .. is an inextricable part of a larger fabric … has a variable density plan and a variable density section… (Smithson, 1993)The ‘good city’ that Lynch describes achieves much of what Alison and Peter Smithson’s ideas of ‘conglomerate ordering’ (Smithson, 1993) achieve, using the Italian hill town as an example from which to find the ‘naturalness’ identified by Alexander and sense of place by Jacobs. The Smithsons list a number of hallmarks that an ordering should fulfil in ‘The Canon of Conglomerate Ordering’. A building of the conglomerate order should, they write…

The Smithson’s concept of ordering understands the place (town or city) as a sum of parts and so the building unit “responds to the complexity and changeability … offering an ability to include in its order continuous change… the conglomerate building” (Smithson, 1993, p.69). A clustering of conglomerate buildings will result in a dense urban building mat which the Smithson’s understood to be an ordering indigenous to the strong heritage of Islamic architecture. Recalling Alexander’s definition of the ‘natural cities’, those which “have arisen more or less spontaneously over many, many years” (Alexander, 1965) is also an archetype of the Islamic city – a tangle of narrow streets and little neighbourhoods, mohallas, surrounded by bazaars and streets and grouped around religious structures.

The organic and incrementally developed city is vividly evident in most Indian cities today. The historic and ‘natural’ core of Delhi, Shahjahanabad, provides a template for such unplanned, incremental structures. The subdivision and reinvention of the Old City is described by Jyoti Hosagrahar as paradigmatically ‘incremental’- she writes:

The organic layout and incrementally developed structures of the walled city were neither accidental nor disorderly. Rather, the built form was a reasonable response to existing social and functional needs, to climate, and to available resources, materials and technology. People built and used space in ways that responded to indigenous notions of identity, social functions and behaviour, and spatial assumptions. … Many inhabitants of the city saw their various traditions, such as inherited building practices, not as superstition but rather as embodying cumulative knowledge. (Hosagrahar 2001, pp.32)

[P]rospering entrepreneurs and traders rushed to rebuild residential structures, shops, and workshops from old abandoned or disused haveli buildings. … On small lots carved from the old large haveli, merchants built new, redefined haveli consisting of a single central courtyard with rooms all around. Smaller and more modest in design, the redefined “traditional” house was rational, efficient, and built with new materials and technology. … In colloquial usage, the word haveli in Delhi has remained a signature of traditional aristocratic living. However, in its many variations the haveli was not a timeless or changeless house form. From princely mansion to modest dwelling and then into a tenement house or a more rational and efficiently designed house, the haveli has undergone a variety of metamorphoses. (Hosagrahar 2001, p.38, 42)Dominating the region until the establishment, in 1911, of New Delhi as the new capital of British India (replacing Calcutta) Shahjahanabad (also referred to as Old Delhi or the walled city) was formed by a tightly knit conglomeration of buildings, internal courtyards and places. The whole city was divided into neighborhoods, mohullas, based on social and economic hierarchies. The ‘traditional’ or ‘indigenous’ dwellings, havelis, neighborhood-like mansion buildings, built around courtyards and often richly embellished, were complex clusters of buildings indistinguishable from the urban fabric of the city.  By the mid 19th century unable to support the lavish lifestyle of the mansions many owners decided to subdivide, sell or rent parts of their plots which created a new denser neighbourhood within the historic structures.

This incremental ‘metamorphosis’ happened principally within the walled boundary. Despite removal of large sections of the original enclosing wall, Old Delhi remains circumscribed and contained by major roadways. Today Old Delhi is best described as incremental urbanism – a process which the architectural historian Joseph Connors described as “establish a piazza here, design a new facade there, place a door to align with a street, straighten a street or bend it toward a monument. Those urban projects that blossomed out of localized building activity also left traces of grander visions on their immediate context” (Mayernik, 2003, pp2). Incremental urbanism enables the city to develop as individual occupants or builders navigate rapidly changing environments with scarce resources – the building process is continuous responding to available skills, materials, culture and resources. Such construction results in many innovations which might seem piece-meal or haphazard but are actually a refined and rapid response (Mitchell, 2010, p. 53).

Today, incremental housing is associated with emerging/developing cities whereby rapid growth of the urban population has occurred faster than the formal sector resulting in an informal, piece-meal, housing stock. Incremental housing shown through the work of people like Nabeel Hamdi and John Turner has also become an urban design strategy assisting such incremental or piecemeal growth. The basis was that the cost of housing could be reduced by recognising that poor urban families already build and extend their own dwellings incrementally in response to their needs and the availability of resources (Cities Alliance, 2010). The house is therefore perceived as a process (Turner, 1972) and not as a final product.

Garcia-Huidobro et al. (2008, pp.32-33) describing one of the most famous planned settlements designed to grow incrementally, Previ in Peru, describes this as a collage city. He writes …

In the context of countries with few economic resources, the efforts of each occupant can be taken advantage of to bring about what the State could only implement if it were to set other social aspects to one side. So, understanding housing as a platform of transformation enables the problem to be addressed from the viewpoint of an incremental process in which the intervention of the occupant may enhance the property, the city itself and, in the last analysis, the state’s investments.

All the same it’s not enough just to introduce new notions by considering single-family housing in a piecemeal way; self-managed transformation on a house-by-house basis in turn generate an urban complexity providing richness and consolidating the urban fabric. The city understood as a collage consisting not only of different large-scale interventions but also of a huge number of transformations at the scale of the individual house, strengthens social networks and favours the urban integration of local neighbourhoods; so, the collage-city is a living city, a complex city.



Alexander, C., Ishikawa, S., Silverstein, M., Jaconson, M., Fiksdahl-King, I, and Anghel, S., 1997. A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction. New York: Oxford University Press.

Inam, A., 2002. Meaningful Urban Design: Teleological/ Catalytic/ Relevant. Journal of Urban Design, 7 (1), p.35-58.

Jacobs, J. 1961. The Death and Life of Great American Cities. New York: Random House.

Mapas, J.E., 1999. Place and Experience: A Philosophical Topography. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Meller, H., 1990. Patrick Geddes: Social and Evolutionist and City Planner. London: Routledge.

Seamon, D., 2012. ‘A jumping, joyous urban jumble’: Jane Jacobs’s Death and Life of Great American Cities as a phenomenology of urban place. Journal of Space Syntax, 3 (1), p.139-149.


About juliakingat

British / Venezuelan, Architect & Urban Researcher; PhD Candidate

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